By Tim Schmitt
BUFFALO — Danny Briere is hot. Ranking just a pair of points behind the league’s playoff scoring leaders earns you that description, right?
But he’s not as hot as he was just a few years ago. Usually in early May — while playing for the Phoenix Coyotes — Briere and teammate Teppo Numminen had already packed up the hockey tape and trudged through temps approaching triple digits by the time the NFL draft hit.
Phoenix is a beautiful place. There’s plenty of golf, it rarely rains and the people are welcoming to outsiders — mostly because they’re all outsiders too. I know. I lived there for seven years.
But when it comes to hockey, there’s little chance of striking up a meaningful conversation.
Briere, who grew up a few 3-woods from Ottawa in Gatineau, Quebec, remembers Phoenix as hot, but not warm to its NHL team.
“I grew up in Ottawa where everything is about hockey,” he said. “The first eight pages in the newspaper each day were all about hockey. In Phoenix, it’s just not the same thing. Basketball and baseball would be way above hockey. NASCAR, football, golf. Hockey’s kind of getting lost in the shuffle. We never had a team that did as well as we did here in Buffalo. But the excitement I feel here in the city is what I grew up with.”
As Briere and his teammates are realizing, the novelty T-shirts are all wrong — Buffalo is actually a hockey town with a football problem.
He notices when he’s filling up the tank or out for a bite to eat. And most of all, he notices when he steps on the ice at HSBC Arena.
“I’ve been saying since the new year started, people were excited in the city everywhere I went. You sensed the atmosphere. People are excited and they’re pumped about their hockey team,” he said. “The last couple weeks walking around town, going to restaurants, you can tell people are excited. It’s fun to be part of it. I’m not talking about a couple hundred persons.
“The whole city is behind us. Look at the home games here. People talk about how loud the building in Philly was, it was just as loud here. If not even more.”
Briere gets a special chance during this series — a chance to go home and play in front of friends family that have been waiting for him to become a star. He is, finally, and came prove it on his home stage.
Both home stages.
“It took me a long time to be somebody who can make a difference on a hockey team. Now to have the chance to come back into your hometown and get that chance to move closer to the Stanley Cup is special,” he said. “But this is our home now.”
Briere has three boys, five, six and seven years old. They’ll have memories like those Briere had in Gatineau watching Hockey Night in Canada.
“They’re having some fun,” Briere said. “They like the excitement. It’s a little bit like when I was growing up watching the Montreal Canadiens with all the excitement.
“Except their dad is on the team. That’s the only difference.”
Contact group sports editor Tim Schmitt at (716) 282-2311, Ext. 2266.